Comment: ISIS’ pivot to East Asia shows it is still winning the ideological war

It is now an ominous reality that global jihadist factions are uniting under the ISIS umbrella


US President Barack Obama’s second White House term has long been touted as the foundation for American ‘pivot to East Asia’ – a strategic shift from Middle East/Europe to (South) East Asia.

This foreign policy manoeuvre was designed to counter Chinese geostrategic expansion and forge military and economic ties in a region where a gaping geopolitical vacuum was asking to be filled.  

While the US might have put its pivot on pause, with more pressing engagements in the old battlefield, terror group Islamic State (IS) – known varyingly as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh – has unleashed its own strategic shift vying to set up a ‘distant caliphate’, at a time when it’s being militarily battered in the aforementioned battlefield.

ISIS’ announcement came through the Jakarta attacks on Thursday, which targeted a Starbucks outlet and a police traffic control booth.

The mastermind of the attack, Bahrun Naim, a former computer technician and blogger, is leading a Southeast Asian branch of ISIS from Raqqa in Syria, Katiba Nusantara which already has hundreds of ISIS-affiliated militants.

The aim of Katiba Nusantara is to establish the aforementioned ‘distant caliphate’ by unifying ISIS-supporting elements in Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines, in turn underscoring ISIS’ reach to the Far East, and giving an outlet to militants who might be disheartened by the defeats in the Middle East.

Naim has been publishing blogs and social media updates to his followers from Syria, explaining how to make suicide vests and remote controlled bombs. Abu Muhammad al-Indonesi’s video titled Join the Ranks, released days after ISIS announced the so-called global caliphate to recruit people in Indonesia, is still popular among recruiters as well. The video calls joining ISIS ‘an obligation decreed by Allah.’

According to Indonesian government estimates 700 Indonesians had fled to join ISIS in Syria by July 2015, a number that is believed to have increased by hundreds since then. The Indonesian foreign ministry confirms that 210 Indonesians, including women and children, were deported from six different countries for trying to join ISIS last year.

Meanwhile in August 2014, a survey by Al Chaidar, an Islamic scholar, reported that 2 million Indonesians had pledged allegiance to ISIS – that’s 8 per cent of the Indonesian population. That the survey itself was unsubstantiated wouldn’t matter much to those who already vulnerable to ISIS propaganda.

Naim, still only 32, was among those who bought the propaganda and made the ‘pilgrimage’ to Syria after being released following a two-and-a-half year sentence in June 2012, which he served over ‘possession of illegal arms’.

While Indonesia has long been associated with the relatively progressive part of the Muslim world, it is no stranger to establishment of ‘Islamic state’. In 1949, four years after the country’s independence from the Netherlands, the Darul Islam announced an Islamic state of Indonesia, which marred the next couple of decades or armed jihadist rebellions.

Radical communists overcame the militant Islamists in the 60s, and when they fell along with other communist governments around the globe, jihadists once again found a vacuum to exploit going into the new century.

The 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, orchestrated by the Jeemah Islamiyah (JI), an offshoot of Darul Islam, is still considered one of the deadliest al-Qaeda affiliated terror attacks. The 2009 Jakarta bombings, the last noteworthy terror attack in the region before last week, were orchestrated by JI as well.

While it’s clear that al-Qaeda affiliates were calling the shots in 2000s, the jihadists are now gravitating towards ISIS, which is successfully attracting Muslims from all over the world. ISIS’ presence in Southeast Asia, mirrors the terror group’s penetration into South Asia, with militants affiliated with regional jihadist groups, pledging allegiance to the biggest brand in global jihadism right now.   

The Islamic State of Southeast Asia, just like the Islamic State of Khorasan – an area encompassing parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan – clearly signifies that defeats on the ground won’t suffice in countering the spread of ISIS.

Unlike in  the previous century, modern day jihadist recruitment doesn’t necessitate the physical spread of the group’s core elements. The internet – social media in particular – has been the ideological battleground for the past decade.

And while ISIS might be suffering losses on ground, it has long been winning the ideological war by luring in tens of thousands of Muslims, who are readily buying the caliphate dream.

ISIS establishing ‘distant caliphates’ in Khorasan and Southeast Asia signifies that it has penetrated the two most populous Muslim countries in the world – Indonesia and Pakistan. While it would be an overstretch to suggest that the terror group has anything more than minimal functional capacity in these regions, as things stand, it is now an ominous reality that global jihadist factions are uniting under the ISIS umbrella.

This budding cohesion can only be forestalled from evolving into something prodigiously more menacing by us Muslims manifesting a unity that doesn’t solely restrict itself to calling out ISIS. It is more crucial to highlight and condemn Islamist ideas like the caliphate, Shariah law and armed jihad (under any condition), which are advocated by many of us, including prominent Muslim leaders that vociferously condemn ISIS. For, as long as the ingredients that make up jihadism prevail, the gravitation towards ISIS will continue.

While the West might be leading the counter-ISIS efforts on the ground, we Muslims alone can beat ISIS at the ideological war. The longer we take to realise the importance of winning this war, the more time we’ll give ISIS to snowball into something a lot more perilous, the ramifications of which would grip the Muslim world first and foremost.

Kunwar Khuldune Shahid is a Friday Times journalist. Follow him on Twitter

Like this article? Left Foot Forward relies on support from readers to sustain our progressive journalism. Can you become a supporter for £5 a month?

108 Responses to “Comment: ISIS’ pivot to East Asia shows it is still winning the ideological war”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.